Under the Sun/Cats and Sparrows
CATS AND SPARROWS.
They are of Two Species, tame and otherwise. — The Artificial Lion. — Its Debt of Gratitude to Landseer and the Poets. — Unsuitable for Domestication. — Is the Natural Lion the King of Beasts? — The true Moral of all Lion Fables. — “Well roared, Lion!” — The Tiger not of a Festive Kind. — There is no Nonsense about the Big Cats. — The Tiger’s Pleasures and Perils. — Its Terrible Voice. — The poor Old Man-Eater. — Caught by Baboos and Killed by Sheep. —The great Cat Princes. — Common or Garden Cats, approached sideways. — The Physical Impossibility of Taxing Cats. — The Evasive Habits of Grimalkin. — Its Instinct for Cooks. — On the Roof with a Burglar. — The Prey of Cats. — The Turpitude of the Sparrow. — As an Emblem of Conquest and an Article of Export. —The Street Boy among Birds.
CATS are of two kinds at least, — the common or garden pussy, and the wild or undomesticated felis.
The former is of various colors and qualities, the gray specimens being called tabbies and the larger ones toms. Both are equally fond of fish, and their young (which are born blind) are called kittens, and are generally drowned.
The latter, or undomesticated kind, is exactly like the former; but it is usually much larger, and when offered milk it does not purr. One of these cats is called the lion. The lion, to be precise, is also of two sorts — the natural and the artificial — and on the whole the latter animal is the better of the two. It is generous and brave, the King of Beasts, and one of the supporters of the British Arms.
Landseer has done a great deal for this lion, and in Trafalgar Square in London has left on record four specimens, which all other lions, vel Africanus vel Asiaticus should try and live up to. Other artists also, notably Doré on canvass, and Thorwaldsen in stone, have advantaged the artificial lion very considerably, and both poets and lion-slayers have done their best to elevate its moral and physical virtues in the public estimation, — the former from a mistaken estimate of this animal’s character, derived from antiquity, the latter from a natural desire to represent themselves as being men of an extraordinary courage. These powerful agencies between them have succeeded in rehabilitating the artificial lion, who was at one time becoming rapidly absurd by the liberties taken with it in heraldry and on sign-boards.
A lion rampant, with his tongue lolling out, and two knobs at the end of his tail, is only one of a hundred heraldic aberrations from the normal type, which lovers of nature must agree in deploring; and the green, blue, and red lions of English inns were all such “fearful wild-fowl” as might make cats weep. There have even been spotted lions! It was high time therefore for the artistic champions of the great cat to come to the front, or we might soon have had Tabby and Tortoise-shell lions and Tom lions on our sign-boards.
What dignity after this would have attached to that haughty speech of the lioness who, being rallied by a grasshopper upon having only one cub, loftily replied, “Yes, true, I have only one — but that one is a lion.”
The story has long been popular, and often been applauded, but, as it seems to me, without sufficient judgment. What else could the lioness have expected to produce but a lion? Such was only to be anticipated.
Now if her cub had been a camel or a rhinoceros her pride would have been justified by the exceptional character of her performance; or if her offspring had been a hippopotamus or a giraffe, we might have accepted such complacency as not unnatural under the circumstances. But what are the facts of the case? Or if again it had been even a lion rampant, with its tongue out, or a green lion, or a spotted one, we might have understood the tawny mother’s exultation. As it was, her hauteur was surely misplaced. A lioness gives birth to a cub and it turns out a lion — voilà tout! Yet she was pleased on this account to snub the prolific insect who addressed her, as if she herself had done something out of the common, rare and worth talking about. As a matter of fact, after all, it was only an ordinary, every-day lion. Moreover, it would have been quite within the grasshopper’s right to retort, “A lion? Nonsense. It is only a cat — a kitten. I can hear it mewing.” For the baby lion is faintly brindled, like the most ordinary of pussies, and mews precisely like the kitten in the nursery.
Nevertheless, the artificial (or supernatural) lion differs in many valuable respects from the natural animal. It is magnanimous, as witness that story of the mouse that released the lion from a net and was dismissed by the lion with thanks. Now in a wild state the lion would have eaten the mouse, for it has the usual cat’s taste for mice and rats; and though, if the truth must be told, only an indifferent mouser, might no doubt be made useful in a kitchen. Besides clearing the domestic precincts of the cheese-nibbling folk, it would not be above catching the crickets on the hearth or the humble cockroach — and eating them. The lion in a wild state never disdains such small deer as insects. But whether our modern cooks and kitchen maids would care to have a promiscuous lion downstairs is another matter, and the doubt on this point suggests a very painful contrast between the manners of the larger and the lesser cats.
The lesser cat, it is only too true, is often so carried away by her feelings as to indulge in the surreptitious canary; and she has been known to forget herself so far during the night-watches as to skirmish on the windowsill, in the company of the cat from next door, with such vivacity and want of judgment as to upset flowerpots into the back-yard. The gravity of these misdemeanors cannot be slurred over, but, after all, to what do they amount compared to the havoc that would result from the domestication of some of the larger cats — such as lions?
Confessing his sins in a parliament of the beasts, the lion in the fable says: “J’ai dévoré force moutons; meme il m’est arrive quelquefois de manger le berger!” and from a shepherd to a cook is only a brief step. But between a canary and a cook there is a distance of many parasangs, and the enormity of the one offence is barely comparable to that of the other. Again, the light-hearted cat, when foregathering for frivolous converse with her kind, does damage, as has been said, to occasional flower-pots, and has even in her gayety been known to fall ruinously through the kitchen window. But supposing we tried to keep lions about the place, and our lion were to get on to the roof of the summer-house or on the garden wall with the lion from next door, what would be the result? The roaring of the lion when at liberty is said by those who have heard it to be something terrific. It lays its head, we are told, close to the earth, and in this position emits a tremendous utterance, which rolls growling along the ground like the first mutterings of a volcano. It could be heard all over the town, and we should never get a wink of sleep! But if the lions got frolicsome the consequences would be even more dreadful. The gardens, with their uprooted shrubs, twisted railings, and dilapidated walls, would look next morning as if some earthquakes had been on the premises overnight and got drunk before leaving.
This, however, is somewhat of a digression. To return to the artificial lion and the points in which it differs from the natural animal, we find, besides its magnanimity, that this species possesses an unusual sense of honor. It is said, for instance, by those who wish to magnify it, that it roars before entering a jungle — in order to give all the little creatures in it a chance of running away. The lion is too noble a beast, they say, to take a mean advantage of its neighbors, or to surprise any of them, even the humblest; so it gives warning to the bystanders, like Mr. Snodgrass in the “Pickwick Papers,” that it is “going to begin.” But what are the facts? The lion when on the lookout for a meal is as stealthy as a cat when compassing the ruin of the garden sparrow. It crawls along on its stomach, taking advantage of every tuft of cover and inequality of the ground, and maintaining a perfect silence. More often still it lies in ambush for its victim; and those who have watched a lion under a tamarisk, waiting for the antelope to come browsing by, say there is no difference whatever between its tactics and those of Grimalkin when she lurks under a gooseberry bush for the casual robin. Another fact is that the lion is only bold in the dark. It becomes savage, of course, at all hours, if passers-by take the liberty of wounding it; but during the daytime and on moonlight nights it is, as a rule, so timid that travellers in the Lion-veldt of Africa never even trouble themselves to tether their wagon cattle. Yet this is the King of Beasts.
In what, then, is it kingly? Certainly not in generosity, nor jet in its habits. Kings do not go about catching rats and frogs and insects, nor in their own dominions do they skulk among the undergrowth when in search of a meal. Is it its size? Certainly not; for the elephant is its companion, and the lion never dares to cross the mammoth’s path, confessing by its deference a sense of superiority which other beasts, the lion’s subjects, refuse to entertain — notably the tiger, the wild boar, and the rhinoceros. These three do not hesitate to affront the elephant in broad daylight, and certainly would not turn tail for their “king” if they met him. Is it then in its appearance that this animal claims to be royal among the quadrupeds? It is true that in repose — notably in the splendid bronzes of Trafalgar Square — there is a surpassing majesty in the lions’ heads. They have the countenances of gods. Their manes sweep down upon their shoulders like the terrible hair of the Olympian Zeus, and there is that in their eyes that speaks of a foreknowledge of things and of days, grand as fallen Saturn and implacable as the Sphinx.
But then this is in bronze. In Nature, only one half of the world’s lions have any manes at all; and even of these, the African species, there are but few, so travellers assure us, that reflect in any considerable degree the dignity of Landseer’s effigies, while one writer speaks of “the blandness of his [the lion’s] Harold Skimpole-like countenance!”
Yet, after all, if we dethrone the lion, which of the beasts shall wear the crown? The elephant is infinitely superior, both morally and physically; but the ermine would hardly sit well upon the unwieldly pachyderm. The tiger is more courageous and as strong, but there is too much blood on its claws for a royal sceptre. Shall we give the beasts a dictator in the violent rhinoceros, or raise them an emir from the people by crowning the wild boar? But why have a monarchy at all? Let the quadrupeds be a republic.
But the. suggestion is quite worthy of consideration, Whether the modern ideal of the lion is not really due to a misconception of the object of our predecessors in making this animal so prominent. Originally, there is no doubt, the people fixed upon the lion as the king, not because he had any of the kingly virtues, but because he had all the kingly vices. They satirized monarchy under this symbol. By endowing him with royalty they intended, therefore, to mark him out for public odium, and not for public reverence, just as in more modern days the wolf has stood in Ireland for the landlord. With this explanation as a key, all the fables and stories told of the lion, which hitherto have misled the popular mind as to the regal qualifications of the lion, fall to pieces at once, and are seen to illustrate the failings and iniquities of the purple, and not its virtues or its grandeur.
Take Æsop alone, and translate his fables by this light. The lion and the boar fight, and the match is an equal one — king against the people; but seeing the vultures, a foreign enemy, on the lookout for the corpse of the vanquished, whichever it might happen to be, they make up their quarrel. … A lion (the king) saw three bulls (his turbulent barons) pasturing together, and he made them quarrel and separate, when he ate them up one after the other. … A lion (the king’s army) made an alliance with a dolphin (the king’s navy) in order to have everything their own way, and then the lion tried to oppress a wild bull (his people) and got the worst of it, and the navy could not help him a bit. … Two kings, a lion and a bear, fall to fighting over a kid, and are at length so exhausted with the combat that a passing fox carries off the kid. … A lion, an ass, and a fox went a-hunting, and on their return the king ordered the ass to apportion the spoil. The ass divided it carefully into three equal portions, which so enraged the lion that he devoured him on the spot, and ordered the fox to make a fresh partition. The fox put everything into one great heap as the king’s half, and kept only an accidental fragment of offal for himself, upon which the lion commended his art in division, and asked him where he had learned it. “From the ass,” replied the sycophant. … A great king, a lion, asked a humble neighbor for a favor, which was granted on condition that the lion would dismiss his armed followers — have his teeth drawn, in fact; and as soon as he had consented, the humble neighbor whipped the king off his premises. … The lion is represented as afraid of the crowing of the cock — the awaking of the people; as putting himself to great trouble to catch a mouse that had annoyed him; as the dupe of councillors; and as being constantly overmatched by his subjects.
These fables, therefore, and a hundred others, are not written to dignify the royalty of the lion among the beasts, but to depreciate royalty among men under the symbol of a lion, — an animal that has a majestic aspect and noble antecedents, but is both tyrannical and mean, mutton-headed and stealthy. His friends are always the cunning, and his natural enemies the courageous. The poets, however (of course), entirely misunderstand these parables of antiquity, and, having often heard and read of the king of beasts, they invest the lion with all the insignia of monarchy. But the poets, until the nineteenth century, were as a class curiously and ludicrously ignorant of natural history, — and more completely at discord with Nature generally, more unsympathetic, more imitative, and more incorrect, than could be supposed possible. So their championship of the lion goes for nothing, unless we are content to accept all their fictions in a lump together, and to think of bears ravaging sheepfolds, baboons swinging by their tails, and vultures chasing turtle-doves.
The travellers who seek a lion-slayer’s fame are no less at fault, for they also misuse their facts. Other travellers on the same hunting-grounds have described the great cat to us too often to make the Bombastes Furioso of spurious adventures a reality. Instead of the huge beast standing erect on the plain in mid-day, and advancing with terrific roaring upon the hunter, every hair of the magnificent mane erect and the eyes flashing fire, we are introduced to a sulky cat that trots away round the corner on the first warning of man’s approach; and which, so far from provoking conflict, takes advantage of every feature of the country that offers it concealment, or affords it a way of escape from its dreaded persecutor. The Dutchmen in Africa have named the districts in which this animal ranges, the Lion-veldt, and this is a splendid compliment. But they regard the king of beasts as a pest, and do not fear it as a danger, while the natives reverence it as a voice, and a terrible one, but præterea nihil. It was for this same majesty of voice that Ali the Caliph was named the Lion of Allah. In the “Pilgrim’s Progress” it was the sound of the lions that first terrified Faithful and his party, for we are told it had “a hollow voice of roaring;” and it was the same roaring that frightened poor Thisbe to her death. Perhaps then, after all, it is with beasts as it is often with men, that he who roars loudest and oftenest is counted the best in the crowd, and that the lion’s only claim to kingship is in the power of his lungs. If this be so, we can only say, with the duke in the play, “Well roared, lion!”
Another large cat is called the tiger. There is no nonsense about the tiger as there is about the lion. He is not an impostor. Wolves may go about pretending that they are only dogs that have had the misfortune of a bad bringing up, and the lion may swagger round trying to look as if he were something else than a cat; but the tiger never descends to such prevarication, — setting himself up for better than he is, or claiming respect for qualities which he does not possess. There is no ambiguity about anything he does. All his character is on the surface. “I am,” he says, a “thorough going downright wild beast, and if you don’t like me you may lump me; but in the mean while you had better get out of my way.” There is no pompous affectation of superior intelligence about the tiger, no straining after a false reputation for magnanimity. If he is met with in a jungle, he does not make-believe for the purpose of impressing the traveller with his uncommon sagacity, or waste time like the lion in superfluous roaring, shaking of manes, and looking kingly. On the contrary, he behaves honestly and candidly, like the beast he is. He either retires precipitately with every confession of alarm, or, in his own fine outspoken fashion, goes for the stranger. Nor, when he makes off, does he do it as if he liked it, wasting his time in pretentious attitudes, or in trying to save appearances. He has no idea of showing off. If he has to go he goes, like lightning, and does not think for a moment of the figure he is cutting. But if, on the other hand, he means fighting, he gives the stranger very little leisure for misunderstanding his intentions. The tiger, therefore, deserves to be considered a model wild beast, and to be held in respect accordingly. He knows his station and keeps it, doing the work that Nature has given him to do with all his might.
The result of this honesty is that no one misrepresents the tiger. Exaggerated praise and slander are alike impossible of an animal that refuses to be misjudged. There is no opening for dishonest description, for he is always in the same character; no scope for romancing about a beast that is so consistently practical, or for fable when he does nothing in parables. Moreover, most of the other beasts play a second part in the world, and have a moral significance, — like the creatures grouped about Solomon’s throne, or the standard-emblazonments of the tribes of Israel, or the armorial bearings of families and nations, or the badges of the Apostles. But no one uses the tiger in this way as a metaphor. There is not sufficiently subtlety in the emblem. It is too coarse, too downright. A tiger is a tiger, and nothing more or less. Once only it was made a royal emblem, — by Tippoo, the Sultan of Mysore, — but then professedly out of mere brutal ferocity. In the same vein that amiable prince constructed a mechanical toy, now in the South Kensington collection, which represented a tiger, life-size, mumbling the body of an English soldier; and when the machinery was in proper order, the tiger growled and the soldier groaned with considerable power. But Mr. John Bright, so they say, finding time heavy on his hands during the Sultan’s ball, amused himself with Tippoo’s toy, and by overwinding the machine, broke it. At any rate, the tiger goes through his growling performances now in a very perfunctory and feeble manner.
For the same reason, namely, that the tiger affords no room for the play of fancy, the poets prefer leopards to tigers. There is more left to the imagination in the sound of the smaller animal’s name, and as it is not so well known as the tiger, they have wider margin for poetical license. The moralist, for a similar reason, avoids the tiger, for no amount of ingenuity will extract a moral out of its conduct.
In short, then, the tiger may be taken as the supreme type of the pure wild beast. Life has only one end for him — enjoyment; and to this he gives all his magnificent energies. Endowed with superb capabilities, he exercises them to the utmost in this one direction, without ever forgetting for an instant that he is only a huge cat, or flying in the face of Nature by pretending to be anything else.
Speed, strength, and cunning are his in a degree to which, in the same combination, no other animal can lay claim; in daring none exceed him, while for physical beauty he has absolutely no rival. A tiger has been known to spring over a wall five feet high into a cattle enclosure, and to jump back again with a full-grown animal in its jaws; and has been seen to leap, holding a bullock, across a wide ditch. As regards its speed, the first bounds of a tiger are so rapid as to bring it alongside the antelope; while for strength, a single blow of its paw will stun a charging bull. Its stealth may be illustrated by the anecdote of the tiger carrying away the bait while the sportsmen were actually busy putting up the shelters from which they intended to shoot it when it came; and its daring, by the fact that numbers do not appal it, that it will single out and carry off a man out of the middle of a party, and that it regularly helps itself to cattle in broad daylight, in full sight of the herdsmen or the whole village. I have not gone for my illustrations to any traveller’s tale, but to records of Indian shikar that are absolutely beyond suspicion. To enable it to achieve such feats as these Nature has created in the tiger the very ideal of brute symmetry and power. The paws, moreover, are fitted with large soft pads which enable this bulky animal to move without a rustle over ground where the lizard can hardly stir without being heard; while its coloring, though it seems conspicuous enough when seen in a cage behind bars and against a background of whitewash, assimilates with astonishing exactness to its surroundings when the tiger lies in ambush under the overhanging roots, or crouches amongst the cane-grass.
For the tiger makes no pretence to invincible courage. On the contrary, he prefers, as a rule, to enjoy life rather than die heroically. When death is inevitable he is always heroic, or even when danger presses him too closely. But, if he can, he avoids the unequal contest between brute courage and explosive shells, and makes off at once for more sequestered woodlands, where he can reign supreme and be at ease. It is indeed a splendid life that this autocrat of the jungle leads. The day commences for him as the sun begins to set, and he then stalks from his lair to drink at the neighboring pool, after which, his thirst slaked, he creeps out towards the glade where the deer are feeding. The vigilant, restless herd has need now for all its acuteness of ear and nostril, but it will certainly be unavailing, for the tiger is hungry, and, his prey once sighted, there is no gainsaying him. Using all the craft of his kind , the great cat steals upon his victims with consummate patience, and in such silence that even the deer have no suspicion how swiftly that stealthy death is approaching. It is like being killed by a shadow or a ghost, for not a sound of moving leaf or breaking twig has given them warning; and yet, all on a sudden, right in their midst it may be, there is an instant’s swaying of the grass, and lo! the tiger.
The next instant he is flying through the air in a terrific bound, and as the herd sweeps away down the glade, one of their number is left behind, and is already dead.
The tyrant eats what he wants, and then strolls back into the jungle indolently and, so to speak, in good humor with all the world. We can then imagine him stalking a company of sambhur in fun, and afterwards see him standing up alone in the open space, laughing grimly, shaking his sides at the joke, as the antlered creatures fly terrified before his form revealed; or we may watch him insolently stretching himself in the full moonlight upon the ground near the favorite drinking pool, and daring all the beasts of the jungle to slake their thirst there so long as he remains. What strange wild scenes he must witness in the gray morning, as the world begins to wake up to life, and the night-feeding things go back to their lairs, with the bears shuffling along in good-humored company, the slinking wolves, and the careless trotting boars; and the multitude of smaller creatures, furred and feathered, going out for the work of the day, or coming home tired with the work of the night.
Nor is his life without brilliant episodes of excitement, for, apart from the keen triumphs that he enjoys whenever he seeks his food, there are thrilling intervals in each recurring summer when the hunt is equipped for his destruction, with all the pomp of marshalled elephants and an army of beaters.
The heat of May has scorched up the covert and the water, except in a few pools where a fringe of vegetation still lingers, and the tiger can still find a mid-day lair. Here the hunters seek him, and, whether we look at the quarry they pursue or the picturesque surroundings of the day’s excitement, it must be confessed that tiger-shooting has no rival in all the range of sport. Even if no tiger is seen, if the elephant grass is beaten in vain, and the coverts of cane-clump and rustling reed are drawn without a glimpse of the great striped beast, there is such a multitude of incidents in the day’s adventure that it is never a blank. As the drive comes on towards the ambushed rifles, the park-like glades that stretch away to right and left are never wanting in animal life. The pea-fowl and the wild pig, the partridges and grouse of several kinds, are all afoot, hurrying along before the advancing line. The jackals sneak from brake to brake, and, pacing out of the jungle that marks the watercourse, come the swamp deer and the noble sambhur. Here a wolf breaks cover sullenly, looking back over his shoulder as he goes, in the direction of the shouting beaters. There a bear goes by, complaining of his rest disturbed. The monkey-folk come swinging along in a tumult of the foliage overhead, and small creatures of the civet kind, with an occasional hare or wildcat, slip by, all wondering at the uproar, but all unmolested alike. For the honor of death is reserved to-day for the tiger only, and he, as a rule, is the last of all the denizens of the jungle to allow his repose to be broken, or to confess that he is alarmed. But even he has eventually to admit that this advancing line of noisy men means danger, and so he retires before them, creeping from clump to clump with consummate skill. Yet the swaying tassels of the tall plumed grass betray his moving, and on a sudden he finds himself in the ambush laid for him, and from the tree above him or from some overhanging rock the sharp cracks of the rifle proclaim that the tyrant of the jungle is dead.
When the tiger is followed up with elephants, fresh elements of adventure and picturesqueness are added to the day's sport — but the theme is an old one. The fact, however, remains that whatever the method employed for encompassing his death, or wherever he may be found, the tiger proves himself a splendid beast. If he can, he will avoid the unfair contest with bullet and shell; but let him only have his chance and he shows both man and elephant how royally he can defend his jungle realm against them.
His voice, it has been contended, is not regal. To dispute this one has only to go to any menagerie, where, though the lion’s roar may be the loudest, the tiger’s is not less terrific. Nor when he is heard roaming abroad in the jungles in the night can anything be imagined more terribly weird or unnatural than his utterances.
He has found, perhaps, that a pack of wild dogs — voiceless hunters of the forest — are crossing his path; and his angry protest, delivered in rapid, startling coughs, is certainty among the most terrifying sounds of Nature, while nothing can surpass the utter desolation that seems to possess the night when the tiger passes along the jungle to his lair, with his long-drawn, whining yawn. The lion’s roar is, of course, unapproachable in its grandeur, but the tiger compresses into a cough and a yawn such an infinity of cruelty and rage, such unfathomable depths of fierce wild-beast nature as cannot be matched in forest languages.
Man-eating tigers and, even more, man-eating tigresses have always commanded among human beings a certain awful respect. Nor is this to be wondered at in India, when each year’s returns tell us that about a thousand persons perish annually by these brutes. When, therefore, to the word “tiger” — itself a synonym in every language, civilized or savage, for stealthy, cruel, strong-limbed ferocity — is prefixed the aggravating epithet of “man-eating,” the imagination prepares itself for the worst, and the great carnivore stalks past, in the mind’s eyes, a very compendium of horrors, bearing about with it on its striped hide a Newgate Calendar of its many iniquities. But is it not just possible that the sensitiveness of humanity with regard to itself and all that pertains to its own security and dignity may have exaggerated the terrors of the man-eater? A lion-eating tiger would in reality be quite as fearful a thing as one that, with toothless jaws and unnerved limbs, falls upon miserable men and women; but a lion-eating tiger would not be considered an abominable monster. We should speak of it as a wise dispensation of nature for keeping the equilibrium among the carnivora, as a respectable and commendable beast that apologized for and justified its own existence by killing something else as noxious as itself; just as the cockroach has retained some shreds of reputation by eating mosquitoes. But alas for the tiger! the day comes when the wretched animal is so ill-conditioned that its kith and kin will not admit its relationship, and drive it forth; so feeble that the wild pig turns upon it and mocks it; so slow of foot that everything escapes from it; so old that its teeth fall out and its claws splinter; and, in this pitiful state, it has to go far afield for food. It has to leave the jungles it has lorded it over for so many years; the pleasant pools to which, in the evening, the doomed stag used to lead his hinds to water; the great beds of reed and grass in which, lazily basking, it heard the thoughtless buffaloes come grazing to their fate, crushing down the tall herbage as they sauntered on; the deep coverts of bamboo and undergrowth where the nylghai reposed his unwieldy bulk; the grand rock-strewn lair, whither he and his tigress used to drag the carcasses that were to feed their cubs.
But where is he to go in his old age? He must eat to live, but what hope is there for such as he to earn an honest meal? With the best intentions possible, no one would believe him. His mere appearance in a village suffices to empty it of all but the bedridden. What is he to do? If the head men of the village would only stay and hear what he had to say, the tiger, it ma}“ be, would explain his conduct satisfactorily, and thenceforward might go decently, like any other hungry wretch, from hamlet to hamlet, with a begging-dish in his mouth.
Here, again, society is against him. In India the people do not eat meat, not enough of it, at any rate, to satisfy a tiger on their leavings; and to offer an empty tiger parched grain and vegetable marrows, wherewith to fill itself, is to mock the animal and to trifle with its tenderest feelings. So the tiger, despairing of assistance or even sympathy, looks about him in the deserted village, and, finding an old bedridden female in a hut, helps himself to her and goes away, annoyed, no doubt, at her toughness, but all the same, poor easy beast, glad of the meal.
Perhaps it is such a one as this that was caught not long ago by an old native in India, in a pit. A man-eating tiger that would fall into a pit could hardly have been in the enjoyment of the full complement of its senses; and when, having tumbled like a sack of potatoes into the hole, we hear that it did not jump out again, but permitted itself to be tied up and carted away, we must confess that something of the awesome terrors attaching by tradition to the anthropophagous cat fall away from it. An average sheep would have behaved with more spirit.
Meanwhile, it does not detract from the gallantry of the capture, or the originality of the conception, that the tiger should have behaved so tamely. For the native, there can be only one feeling of respectful admiration. It would not occur to every one to dig a hole for a tiger, and sit by with a rope. But the capture, ridiculous as it was, has had some precedents, for the terror of the jungles has often, from pure rashness, stumbled into ridiculous positions with fatal consequences. Whether it is true that two British sailors once caught a tiger by tempting him into a barrel, and then, having pulled his tail through the bung-hole, tying a knot in it, I do not undertake to decide. But that a tiger has been taken prisoner in a blanket is beyond dispute; as also that a tiger, having thrust its head through a wicker crate which was filled with ducks, could not withdraw it, and in this ignominious plight, with the ducks making a prodigious noise all the while, blundered about the camp until, getting among the horses, it was kicked to death. Tigers have choked themselves by trying to swallow frogs, and in single combat with smaller animals been shamefully defeated.
Thus a man-eating tiger of immense proportions, at one time the pride of the Calcutta collection, was killed under circumstances that covered it with ridicule. It happened that a fighting ram belonging to a soldier in one of the regiments cantoned in the neighborhood, became so extremely troublesome that the colonel ordered it to be sent to the Zoological Gardens. Yet there it was as troublesome as ever, and being no curiosity, though excellent mutton, it was decided to give it to the great tiger. So ferocious was this creature supposed to be that it had a specially constructed cage, and its food was let down through a sliding grating in the roof. Down this, accordingly, the ram was lowered. The tiger was dozing in the corner, but when it saw the mutton descend, it rose and, after a long sleepy yawn, began to stretch itself. Meanwhile, the ram, who had no notion that he had been put there to be eaten, was watching the monster’s lazy preparations for his meal with the eye of an old gladiator, and, seeing the tiger stretch himself, supposed the fight was commencing. Accordingly he stepped nimbly back to the farthest corner of the stage, just as the tiger, of course, all along expected he would do, — and then, which the tiger had not in the least expected, put down his head and went straight at the striped beast. The old tiger had not a chance from the first, and as there was no way of getting the ram out again, the agonized owners had to look on while the sheep killed the tiger!
Nor are such instances at all uncommon. Old cows have gored them, village dogs have worried them, horses have kicked their ribs to fragments, and even man himself, the proper lawful food of the man-eating tiger, has turned upon his consumer, and beaten him off with a stick. When a tiger can thus be set at naught by his supper, he hardly deserves all the reverent admiration with which tradition and story-books have invested him, and which an untravelled public has superstitiously entertained towards him.
“Generally speaking,” says Dr. Jerdon, a great authority on Indian zoölogy, “the Bengal tiger is a harmless, timid animal. When once it takes to killing man it almost always perseveres in its endeavors to procure the same food; and, in general, it has been found that very old tigers, whose teeth are blunted or gone, and whose strength has failed, are those that relish human food, finding an easy prey.”
Now, I would contend, there is no malignity here. The picture, indeed, is a pathetic one. Content, so long as it had good eyesight and sound teeth, to hunt wild beasts, the tiger, at an age when comfort and idleness should have been its lot, is compelled, poor wretch, to quit its natural haunts for the highways of men and their habitations. Its life becomes now a terror to itself; and the very quest for food is no longer the supreme pleasure it was in the days when it flashed like a streak of flame from its ambush upon the stately sambhur — or stalked with consummate skill the wary bison, and then plunging upon the great beast, bore it to the ground by the terrific impetus of its spring, and stunned it into beef with one tremendous blow. In those strong, fierce days, its roar silenced the many-voiced jungle; but now, as it creeps among the growing crops, or lurks in the shadow of the village wall, it has to hold its breath, lest a sound should betray it into danger. For everything is now a peril to it, even a company of unarmed men, or a pack of village curs, or a herd of kine. So it lays its helpless old body close along the ditch, where some weeds suffice to hide its terror-striking appearance, once its pride but now its ruin, and waits hy the pathway for some returning villager, man, woman, or child, some belated goat or wandering calf. To be sure of its dinner it must be certain there will be no resistance, and every meal is, therefore, snatched with anxiety and fear. To such a life of degradation and shame does the splendid quadruped descend in toothless old age!
The lesser carnivora, as they are called, play a very important part in the political system of the beasts. They are the great feudatory princes and independent barons of the wild world.
Claiming kinship with royalty, they possess within their respective earldoms all the privileges of independent sovereigns and the powers of life and death. At the head of fierce clans they defy the central authority, and retiring within their own demesnes maintain there almost regal state. Such are the pumu, jaguar, leopard, and panther.
The puma, indeed, calls itself the lion in South America; the leopard, the tiger among the Zulus and throughout South Africa; and the panther is the tiger of Ceylon. But of these four furred princes, the jaguar rises most nearly to the standard of royalty, and it is certainly, both in appearance and the circumstances of its life, a splendid cat.
Unaccustomed to being annoyed, travellers see him in broad daylight lying stretched out at full length on the soft turf, under the shade of some Amazonian tree, thoroughly careless of danger, because so completely unused to being attacked. The explorer’s boat passing along the river does not make him do more than raise his head, for the river is not in his own domain. It belongs to the cayman and the manatee, and it is their business, not his, to see to the boat. Wherever he goes animal life is so abundant that he finds no trouble in securing food, and, like the negroes of the Seychelles, he grows, from pure laziness and full feeding, sleek, large-limbed and heavy. His coat becomes strangely glossy, soft and close; the colors on it deepen and grow rich in sumptuous shades of velvety chestnut, brown and black; his limbs thicken, his body plumps out, and his jaws assume the full sensual contour characteristic of tropical man. He moves along with a lounging gait, often resting as he goes; and his eyes, as he turns his head incuriously to this side or to that, are large and soft and lustrous; while his voice, when he takes the trouble to warn away any incautious peccary or indiscreet capybara, is rich and low in tone. In every aspect, in fact, the jaguar presents himself to the mind as a pampered child of Nature, the representative in the beast world of the Creole and negro of the Seychelles. In those wondrous islands the black man spends his day in utter idleness, lying on the white sea-beach or under the breadfruit trees, smoking the cigars his wife makes, watching the big fish chasing the little ones in the lagoon, or his fowls scratching among the wild melon beds. When he is hungry his wife goes down to the sea and catches a fish, one of his children plucks a pile of plantains and shakes down the green cocoanuts; and thus, indolent and full fed, he grows, like the jaguar, sleek and strong, with glossy skin and huge limbs.
The puma is a companion of the jaguar, but they seldom meet, for mutual respect defines for them their respective domains, and neither cares to trespass on the other. Nature has been equally kind to both, but the puma is of a restless temperament, and neither the abundance of food nor the temptations of the Brazils to idleness are enough to damp its energy. There is something of the immigrant and colonist about it. It is perpetually in quest of adventure or work to do, climbing about among the interwoven foliage, or prowling among the brushwood of more open country Its one great object in life seems to be the chase, for the sport’s sake, for it kills far more than it can ever eat, and often indeed does not attempt to consume its prey. This has given the puma a character for ferocity in works of natural history which its appearance in a cage would hardly justify, for its comfortable fur and sleek limbs might be thought to belong to a gentler creature.
The leopard and panther are to the east what the jaguar and puma are to the west; and their lives, whether we consider the kindliness of Nature to them or their strange immunity from harm, are equally to be envied. They live, it is true, within the empire of the tiger, but only, as in the days of the Heptarchy, the Mercian or the Northumbrian prince would have called himself within the realm of the Bretwalda; or as, in the early days of France, the dukes of Soissons or of Burgundy were subject to Paris; or, earlier still, only as Acarnania or Locris confessed the hegemony of Sparta. There is respect on both sides, and therefore a large measure of peace within the earldoms and duchies of the big cats.
The domesticated cat is an animal that can be best approached sideways. Direct description, that is to say, does not bring out its peculiarities quite so well as the oblique form, which throws slanting lights upon the subject. To illustrate my meaning, let us take that frivolous proposition of the French to impose a tax upon cats; and following it out, note how the character of the animal develops itself by incidence.
How the tax is to be collected no senator ventured to explain, and when the project comes to the touchstone of practice we may confidently expect it to fall through. For the difficulties in the way of the collection of such a tax are immense. It is true they are not all on the surface, and so the impost may at the first glance pass as plausible; but, in reality, it would be hardly less easy to assess the householder on the mice that might infest his kitchen, or the sparrows that hop about on his window-sill, than upon the vagabond grimalkins that may choose to “squat” upon his premises. Putting on one side, however, the fact that both the social and the domestic systems would be shaken to their foundations by the exaction of such a duty, — that every cook would be set in opposition to her master by being called upon to pay the tax or dismiss her cat, — there remains this one great difficulty to a successful collection of a tax on cats, that no one would pay it. Some few eccentric persons — those, for instance, who pay “conscience money” — would, no doubt, come forward to be mulcted, but the vast majority of ratepayers would simply disclaim possession of cats, and throw the onus of proof upon the rate-collectors. “My cat!” the landlady would say to him, feigning astonishment, “Bless you, that’s not my cat! It came in quite promiscuous one night, and I have been trying ever since to drive it away. If you don ’t believe me, sir, you can take it away with you now.”
Under the circumstances, what could a collector, with ordinary human feelings, say or do? Is he to throw discredit upon a respectable person’s statement, — supported, moreover, by her unmistakable sincerity in offering the cat there and then to the representative of Government, — by assessing her in spite of her protests?
Moreover, if the landlady, before his very eyes, should proceed to hunt the cat out of her parlor, should, farther, chase it downstairs into the kitchen with a duster, thence through the scullery into the back garden, and, not content with that, pursue it even to the uttermost angle of the garden wall, so that it should be entirely off her premises, the collector’s position would be greatly aggravated; for what more could a person do than this to prove that there was no conspiracy in the matter, no attempt at fraudulent evasion of a legal demand? It is true that, if she were of a nimble kind, the landlady might prosecute her chase even farther, and not desist until she had seen pussy fairly out of the ward; but it surely has not come to this, in a free country too, that elderly ladies must satisfy tax-collectors by such violent exercise, to the detriment of their domestic and other duties; or, because a minion of the law insists upon it that wherever a cat is to be found there it is to be taxed, that females of all ages, delicately nurtured it may be, or otherwise incapacitated from rapid pursuit of animals, are to be set running about the streets and climbing trees, in order to rid themselves of importunate cats! The idea is preposterous.
Here, indeed, I have touched the very heart of the difficulty, for a cat does not of necessity belong to the place where she is found. Cats, in fact, belong to nowhere in particular. They are called domestic, I know, but they are really not so at all. They come inside houses for warmth, and because saucers with milk in them are more often found in houses than on garden walls, or in the roads, or up in trees; because street boys do not go about throwing stones in houses, and because there are no idle dogs there, looking round corners for something to hunt.
Besides, when it rains it is dry inside a house, as compared with out of doors, and sleep can be more comfortably arrived at in the daytime under a kitchen dresser than in such exposed and draughty spots as the roofs of outhouses or under the bushes in the garden of the square. The cat, therefore, comes into our midst from motives of pure self-interest alone, joins the domestic circle simply for the sake of the comforts it affords her, and seats herself upon our particular hearth and home only because she finds herself warm there, and safe.
But at heart she is a vagabond, a tramp, and a gypsy. She is always “on the patter.” Our dwelling-places are really only so many casual wards to her, and she looks upon the basement floor of our houses as a fortuitous but convenient combination of a soup-kitchen and a lying-in hospital. When homeless she does not drown herself in despair, or go and buy poison from a chemist and kill herself. On the contrary, she avoids water with all the precaution possible, even so much as a puddle on the pavement, and carefully sniffs everything she sees lying about before she thinks of trying to eat it.
Nor does she, in desperation, go and steal something off a stall, in order to get locked up in shelter for the night, for she has instincts that teach her to avoid the coarse expedients with which homeless and starving humanity has so often to make such pathetic shift. The cat’s plan is the simplest possible. She merely walks along the street as far as the first house, and, to guard against passing dogs, puts herself at once on the right side of the railings. Here she sits until the back-door opens, and as soon as she sees a domestic coming out she mews plaintively. If the domestic says shoo to her, she shoos at once, for she understands that there is one cat already in the house. But she only goes next door, and there repeats her manoeuvre. The odds are that the next kitchen-maid does not say shoo to her, but only calls out to somebody else inside, “Here’s a cat on the steps, a-mewing like anything.” The adventurer, meanwhile, has got up and, still mewing, rubs herself suggestively on the post, arching up her back and leaning very much on one side — to show, no doubt, that she has no other visible means of support. The kitchen-maid duly reports the cat’s proceedings, and some original-minded domestic at once hazards the suggestion that “the poor thing has lost hisself.” This bold hypothesis is at once accepted as satisfying all the conditions of the problem, and ultimately, from one guileful gesture to another, the cat is found at last rubbing herself — still very much out of the perpendicular and still mewing — against the cook’s skirts in front of the kitchen fire.
A cat has as keen an instinct for a cook as a policeman has, and makes straight for her. A strange dog, they say, will find out the master of a house at once, and immediately attach itself to him. The cat, however, does not trouble herself about such superficial differences of position as these, but goes without hesitation to the great dispenser of creature comforts, the cook. Masters, she says, are untrustworthy; they come and go, and in some houses do not even exist at all; but the kitchen fire is a fixed star, and the cook a satellite that may always be depended upon to be found revolving in her proper orbit. She attaches herself, therefore, to this important domestic at once, and forthwith becomes our cat.
Yet she is only our cat as distinguished from the cat next door. In no other sense is she ours at all. The chances are that the master of the house does not even know that there is such an animal on the establishment. Upon one occasion, certainly, he remembers rudely expelling a cat, more in anger than in sorrow, which he found in the library; but he had no idea, probably, when he had it raked out from under the furniture, that it was a pensioner of his household, and a recognized retainer. Now, how can such a man be called upon to pay a tax on a cat? The animal, by every one’s confession, quartered itself by guile upon the premises, and belongs to nobody. The cook says it can go (for she knows very well that it will immediately come back again), and even the tax-collector could hardly, under the circumstances of a general disclaimer, persist in assessing the little animal. As I have already pointed out, therefore, the presence of a cat in a house does not imply ownership in the householder, for it would be just as fair to infer from the presence of a tea-party of cats in a back yard that they all belonged to the contiguous house. A cat is at home nowhere, for she makes herself at home everywhere. All workhouses are much the same to paupers. It is very difficult, therefore, to see how the collector will collect his tax. His alternatives will be equally disagreeable, for he must either refuse to believe what he is told on oath by every person he calls upon, or else he must remove the cats. For this purpose he would have to go about accompanied by some conveyance not smaller in size than a train-car, for any ordinary Square in the suburbs would supply enough cats to fill a large vehicle. And when he has got them, what will he do with them? Cats cannot be impounded — except in a well, and even then it would be necessary to keep the lid down; nor would it be permissible in these days of advanced humanity to destroy them by cremation as if they were so much condemned stores; nor could they be served out to the parochial authorities for the sustenance of the aged poor. No decent person would consent to be a pauper and to live in a workhouse under conditions that involved cat soup. The question, in fact, is beset with immense difficulties; for one of two things must happen wherever the tax-collector calls, — either injustice must be perpetrated upon the householder, or the law be brought into contempt. Now, if some plan could be devised for ascertaining precisely whose cats they are that always pass the nights in such melancholy hilarity in their neighbors’ gardens, and if these particular cats could be either heavily taxed or carted off — say, to the Canadian frontier — Government, I feel sure, and I speak for myself at all events, might depend upon the hearty co-operation of the public. As the project stands at present, however, a universal cat-tax appears to me impossible.
As another sidelong illustration of cat character, let us take the case of the gentleman found looking for a lost cat at one in the morning in a neighbor’s till, — a proceeding which may be called, at any rate, curious. Whether he was really doing so or not, the magistrate before whom the case came had to decide for himself. The narrative itself is sufficient for my present purpose. Mr. James Cartwright, aged twenty-one, was charged, in a London police-court, with breaking into a rag-dealer’s house at midnight, and stealing a gold mourning ring and twenty-six shillings, for after an exciting chase over the roofs of several outbuildings he had been caught, and the stolen property above referred to was found upon him. Mr. Cartwright, in explanation of his position, said that he was looking for a cat which he had lost. The simplicity of the defence is charming, and the readiness with which it was offered no less admirable, for it is one of the virtues of thought that it should be rapid, and one of the essentials in a hypothesis that it should be simple. Mr. Cartwright's mind must have flashed to its decision on the instant, and the only hypothesis that could possibly have covered all the suspicious circumstances — the hour of his capture, the position on the roof of an outbuilding, the headlong scramble over adjoining premises — was at once off his tongue. He was looking for a cat.
What more natural, he would ask, than that puss should have gone out at night, should have been on the roof of an out-building, and should have tried to elude capture by hasty flight over other roofs? Mr. Cartwright, no doubt, was much attached to his little friend — I can hardly call a cat a dumb companion — and having missed it from the hearth, braved the discomforts of the night air by going forth to seek it in its favorite haunts, which with cats are always a neighbor's premises. Failing to see it at the first cursory glance, he determined to go farther, but apprehending resistance from the cat, he armed himself with an iron bar which a neighboring rag-dealer used for securing a side-door, and, the door happening to open, Mr. Cartwright, naturally enough, went into the house to look for his pet. In his pathetic anxiety he searched every place, whether probable or improbable — and eventually the till.
The sight of the money in it probably suggested to him the feasibility of bribing the cat to return, and he took sufficient for the purpose — twenty-six shillings — and in his then forlorn and disconsolate condition the mourning ring naturally occurred to him as an appropriate and becoming possession. Had he found the cat he would, no doubt, have restored the ring and the money too, and mended the door as well; but, unfortunately, before his object was accomplished, and at the moment of hottest pursuit after the vagabond animal, he was himself captured, and, the circumstances looking suspicious (which it must be candidly admitted they did), he was taken up and committed for trial.
Looking for a cat at night requires good eyes, and might have been safely given to Hercules as an additional labor. For the cat is of an evasive kind. Its person is so inconsiderable that small holes suffice for its entrances and its exits, while a very trifling patch of shadow is enough to conceal a whole soirée of cats. Its feet, again, are so admirably padded that it makes no noise as it goes, and having been born to habits of sudden and silent escape, it vanishes from the vision like a whiff of mist. Terrier dogs think the cat a mean animal, and they have some reason on their side, for the cat never scruples to profit by every possible advantage which nature or accident may offer. Not content with having actually escaped, it perches itself comfortably upon a branch or roof just out of the pursuer’s reach; and while the latter, frantic with tantalizing hopes, is dancing on its hind legs beneath it, the cat pretends to go to sleep, and blinks blandly upon the gradually desponding acrobat. Grimalkin has always this nice consciousness of safety, and does only just sufficient to secure it, enjoying for the rest the pleasure of watching its baffled adversary. Instead of disappearing altogether from sight through the kitchen window, the cat is content with squeezing through the area railings, and siting on the window-sill in full view of the demented terrier, who can only thrust half his head through the bars, and stands there whimpering — “for the touch of a vanished cat and the sound of a puss that is still.”
There is one more charge against the cat, that, though well cared for and well fed, she affects a homeless condition and, going out on the pantiles, fore-gathers with other vagabonds of her kind, and in their company indulges in the music of the future, expressive of many mixed emotions, but irregular and depressing.
Cats seem saddest when they trespass. At home they are silent, but entering a neighbor’s premises they at once commence to confide their sorrows to the whole parish in melancholy dialogue, which in the morning are found to have been accompanied by violent saltations upon the flower-beds. Altogether, therefore, the cat out at night is one who deserves to be caught, and Mr. James Cartwright certainly had my sympathies in the object of his search. But for the means he employed to catch the cat it is impossible to entertain more than a very indifferent degree of respect. In the first place, he might have looked for his cat before one in the morning, which is an unconscionable hour to go running over the roofs of neighbors’ outhouses. Nor in his search need he have wrenched off the iron bar which closed the rag-dealer’s door, for it is not in evidence that his cat was of any extraordinary ferocity or proportions requiring so formidable a weapon of capture; nor, again, need he have looked in the till for his cat. Landladies’ cats, it is notorious, go into remarkable places, and sometimes demean themselves in a manner quite surprising in such small animals; for they will play on the lodger’s piano with dirty fingers, try on the lodger’s bonnets, and eat prodigious quantities of the lodger’s dessert, after taking the key of the chiffonnière out of the pocket of the dress that was hanging in the wardrobe in the bedroom. Mr. Cartwright’s cat, however, does not appear to have been of this kind, and, unless its master meant to bribe the cat to return to him, all other methods failing, I do not see why he should have taken the twenty-six shillings. The mourning ring is more comprehensible, perhaps; but, on the whole, there was a doubtful complexion about that cat-hunt which certainly justified the severe view which the magistrate took.
The proper food of the cat, the common or garden cat, is the sparrow (Spar. Britannicus) . The sparrow’s favorite food is your garden seeds. When he sees you at work the ingenuous bird surveys your operations, and, pleased with the liberal feast prepared, informs his friends of the fact. As a rule they accept his invitation cordially. The diligence of the sparrow in eating what does not belong to him is very remarkable, and nowhere more conspicuous than in the back garden. Sitting on the spouts or chimney-pots of the houses round, he remarks all that goes on beneath, makes a note of the cat that has just gone, under the currant bush at No. 25, and ponders at the top of his voice on the proceedings of the inhabitants of the row generally. Satisfied that seed-sowing is in progress in one of the gardens, he descends, and having collected his friends, remains with them upon the scene of operations, industrious to the last.
With one little black eye applied close to the surface of the soil, and the other doing general duty by keeping a watch upon the overlooking windows, whence sudden missiles might issue, he continues his patient but cheerful scrutiny until certain that nothing remains. It is of no use trying to tempt him from the larcenous repast by the exhibition of honest viands upon the adjoining path; for he knows, perhaps, that the bread will wait for him, but that if he does not eat the seed at once it will be grown beyond his powers of digestion. When he has nothing else to do, he will make fun of the crumbled loaf; will provoke his acquaintances to chase him by flying off with the largest lump; will play at prisoner’s base with it, or drop it down gratings; will carry it up to the roof of a house and lose it down a spout; will do anything with it, in fact, but eat it in a proper and thankful manner.
The back-garden sparrow, indeed, is a fowl of very loose morality, but his habits of life have so sharpened his intelligence that the cats find it as difficult to catch him as the policemen do the urchins of the streets. Rustic sparrows, country-bumpkin birds, fall clumsily into the snares of the village tabby, but in the back gardens of urban districts the cat very seldom indeed brings the birds to bag. It is not that the quadruped has lost her taste for sparrows, or that she has forgotten all her cunning, for now that the shrubs are in leaf, and afford her convenient ambuscade, she may be seen on any sunny morning practising her old wild-life arts in order to circumvent the wily sparrow. But domestication blunts the feline intelligence, and after a long residence in kitchens, and daily familiarities with milkmen, the spell of civilization and its humdrum ways of life falls upon her, and, though she may hunt for sport, the comfortable assurance of a saucer daily replenished dulls her enthusiasm for strange meats; and, without forgetting that the sparrow is toothsome, she remembers more than she used to do that the sparrow is also nimble.
I have observed that the controversy as to whether sparrows are blessings or otherwise to the farmer, and whether, in these days of bad harvests, when almost every grain of corn is precious, the little birds should be encouraged or exterminated, is one that is regularly revived.
All the poets have formally denounced the sparrow, “the meanest of the feathered race,” and how shall any one be found to speak well of him? The best that can be said in the defence of the familiar little fowl is very bad indeed, for no criminal code that yet exists would suffice to exhaust the calendar of his crimes and convict him for all his offences. Not only does the sparrow despise police regulations and make sport of by-laws, but he affronts all our standards of ethics, public morality, and religion. In a church he behaves with no more decorum than in a court of justice, and whether in the pulpit or the dock betrays an unseemly levity that will require the utmost extension of the Arminian doctrines of universal grace to compass his salvation. He is the street boy among birds, and his affronts are gratuitous and unprovoked. It is of no use to retort upon him, or threaten him with the law. The water-pipe suffices as an answer to every repartee, be it a gibe or a menace; and when a sparrow has hopped up a long spout, who would care to bandy arguments with him? Impervious to the battery of exhortation, he perches on the window-sill, invulnerable to the most formidable assaults of reason or the most ferocious onsets of sarcasm, and thoroughly comprehends upon which side of the glass he sits. Pelt him with hard names, and he only chirps monotonously; but if you throw a stone at him, you must pay for the damages.
The sparrow carries no purse, for he steals all he wants; and his name is in no directory, for he lives everywhere. His address is the world, and when changing his residence he apprises no one. There is no city whose freedom he has not conferred upon himself, and no corporation whose privileges he does not habitually usurp. Collectors of rates might well despair if directed to get their dues from him, and school boards need not hope for his reclamation. A long immunity from reprisals has so emboldened this feathered gamin that he seems now to fear nothing, riding on omnibuses free of charge, occupying tenements without paying rent, and feeding everywhere at no cost to himself.
Such, summarized, would stand the indictment against the sparrow, — a contemner of all law, and a rebel against all order, a criminal egotist of a very serious type. But what can be said for the defence? That he is consistently the friend of the farmer is still disputed, and that he fills any important place in the economy of nature, a close observation of his habits must make every one doubt. Imported into foreign countries as “the friend of man,” the sparrow, in Australia as well as in America, has multiplied into a public nuisance; and in return for the gift of new worlds to colonize, the graceless birds have developed into a multitudinous evil. They have also been called “the nightingales of our roofs,” and if they remained upon the roofs only they might be permitted to retain the flattering title of nightingales. Since, however, they come down off the slates into our houses and swagger about in our pleasure-grounds and business premises alike, giving us in return no pleasant song, their claims to the honor of “the queen of the feathered choir” cannot be gravely entertained. Upon the house-tops, if they always stopped there, we might extend to them a generous admiration; but when they contest with us the habitations which we have built for ourselves, and repay us for our protection with impudence only, such sympathy is difficult.
How then can he be defended, this chief vagabond of the air? On his merits he stands categorically convicted, and for his shortcomings it is difficult to find excuse or palliation. Did he ever suffer from winter as the wild things of copse and hedge do, or from drought, or from the encroachments of civilization, his small presumptions might pass unchallenged, as do those of the robins and the finches. But for him there is no frost so severe that it checks the supply of food in the streets, no snow so thick that it blocks up the sparrow’s entrance to goods, sheds, and storehouses. His year has no Ramazan for him. For drought or flood he cares as little. His nurseries do not suffer by rising rivers, nor are his meals curtailed by any severity of the seasons. Nor yet when man, advancing, pushes back the domains of wild things in waste land and wood, does the sparrow share in the troubles which fall to the lot of the songsters of the countryside. Wherever man goes he follows him, a parasite of his grain bags; and no city in which our countrymen have settled is without him.
I remember myself noticing, during the late campaigns in Afghanistan and Zululand, how the sparrows went wherever the commissariat wagons went, and established a colony at every depot. They crossed the Cabul River and the Buffalo with our armies, claiming at once privileges of conquest which our generals hesitated to assert. They levied instant toll on the grain fields, and billeted themselves upon the natives.
The area of their prevalence coincides with the empire of white men, for wherever, and as soon as, the flag goes up, in sign of the white man’s rule, the sparrow perches on the top of it. Ships of all nations carry him as a stowaway from port to port, and, thus defrauding every company alike, these birds range the world, settling where they will. And everywhere the sparrow is safe alike.
And who cares to catch him? Youth, it is true, lays preposterous snares of bricks to entrap him, and sparrow clubs conspire against him; but no sportsman goes out to make a prey of him. Who, indeed, would expend time and patience in fetching a compass about a sparrow, or sit a summer’s day with net and line, decoy-bird and call, with a sparrow before his mind as his reward?
Abroad, also, the sparrow’s arrival is hailed with patriotic glee, and municipalities incontinently go to and legislate for his protection. The sparrow soon discovers that he is favored, and no sooner makes the discovery than he presumes upon it. Selecting prominent corners of public buildings, he stuffs rubbish into the crevices of the friezes, and advertises by long rags which he leaves fluttering and flapping outside that he has built a nest. Secure from cats and assured of man’s patronage, he thrives and multiplies his kind, each generation adding to the general stock of effrontery and presumptuously acquired privileges, until nations turn in wrath upon their oppressors. Men hired for the purpose rake out the sparrows’ nurseries from under the eaves of the churches, and purge the town-hall. But the sparrow cares little for such clumsy retaliation. One house is as good as another, and as for a nest being destroyed, he is glad of an excuse for beginning the honeymoon all over again.
And this reminds me that it is not only in his public character that this vagabond fowl calls for animadversion. In private life his conduct is disreputable. As a frivolous parent, given to rolling eggs out of the nest, and even also his infant progeny; as an unworthy spouse, transferring his affections lightly, and often assaulting the partner of his joys and sorrows; as a bad neighbor, scuffling with his kind wherever he meets with them, — in each aspect he presents himself to the moral mind as undeserving of respect. Yet, with something of that eccentricity of judgment which commends Punch, the immoral consort of Judy, to the public regard, we persist in looking upon the sparrow, with all his notorious faults, as a popular favorite, and resent any exposure of his obliquities.
The tyranny of the sparrow, in fact, is the price of civilization. Only savages are exempt.